Running might seem like a simple activity that anyone can do — like with walking, you just put one leg in front of the other, right? But like with any other exercise, a lot goes into making sure it’s done properly to ensure efficiency and to avoid injury.
“If you’re running for a bus, or chasing after your kids on a playground, your running action is never wrong; it’s natural,” explains Samantha Clayton, senior director of Worldwide Fitness Education at Herbalife, who competed for Great Britain in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. “But if you’re running on a regular basis as part of your fitness routine or [you’re] training for a running event, there are a few common mistakes you can avoid to get the most out of your routine.”
To help you avoid commons injuries and snafus, we asked top athletes and coaches to share the biggest mistakes they’ve seen runners make when hitting the pavement. Here’s what they had to say.
1. You skip out on resistance training
Many runners think that the only practice they need is lacing up their shoes and strutting their stride, but this is one of the biggest mistakes trainers see.
“Running is very demanding on the body, and a proper strength program not only strengthens the muscles supporting the joints, but also the connective tissues,” explains Mike Deibler, founder and owner of San Diego Premier Training in Carlsbad, California. “In fact, research has shown that strength training can even improve endurance and performance in runners.”
If you’re neglecting lifting or resistance training for fear of “bulking up,” know this: Neither of these types of training means you’ll gain major bulk, as distance running will ensure lean muscles. And you don’t even need a gym membership to do so — you can train in your own living room by using your own body weight or by lifting weights.
2. You wear the wrong running shoes
Chances are, if you’re hitting up your local outlet mall or large-scale retailer in search of whatever shoe is on sale, or in the color scheme you like best, you’re choosing the wrong footwear. “Finding the right running shoe for you isn’t that simple, and is best achieved at a specialty running store where professional staff can watch you run and move in the shoes you select,” explains Meghan Kennihan, a certified personal trainer and running coach.
It’s also important to remember that running shoes have a lifespan of about four months for folks who run daily. “Once this lifespan [has] passed, the shoe will no longer be able to absorb force and provide adequate support, which means they’ll be ineffective and could risk injury,” says Andrew Walker, physical therapist and president of PhysioWorks, Sports and Wellness, Inc., in Huntsville, Alabama.
3. You wear the wrong running attire
Clothing that’s too tight or not the right type of fabric can be a poor choice for runners. If you’re a long-distance runner, it’s especially important to wear running-specific attire that’ll keep you cool and dry in the summer, and warm and airy in the winter.
“Poorly fitting clothing can cause unnecessary chafing, and pants that are too tight may interfere with your natural running stride,” Clayton warns. Also, be weary of hats. We lose heat quickest from the top of our head, so a hat or cap that’s not breathable can cause you to overheat fairly quickly. Opt for caps that are designed with exercise in mind, as they’ll be more breathable and will allow heat to escape.
4. You forget to foam roll before every run
Ask yourself: How often do you skip the warm up before your morning or evening run? And putting your legs up on a ledge or stretching your hamstrings or calves on a curb doesn’t count. “This is known as static stretching and doing it before a run can actually hinder your performance and lead to injury,” Kennihan says. “Static stretching causes an inhibition of the muscle tissue, which actually decreases muscle function. [This] is basically telling your body to relax before asking it to perform.”
So what can you do? Opt for dynamic stretching by using a foam roller. “Taking about five to 10 minutes to stretch out on one before your run will massively improve running mechanics, performance, and [it will] reduce injuries,” Deibler says.
5. You don’t share your running goals with friends and family
If you’re afraid to tell your friends, family, or co-workers about your passion for running for fear that you might fail or disappoint them, you’re only hurting yourself. Fear can often be the most powerful form of motivation. And having the support of loved ones when you’re getting into the hardest, longest weeks of training will be seriously worth it.
Word of warning: Do not try to keep them updated on your day-to-day progress. “Unless he or she is a runner, they simply won’t understand your mile-by-mile breakdown of your long run,” Kennihan says. A better option is to confide in a few people who you know care about you, and to seek out their support as fuel for motivation.
6. You lose motivation
There are lots of things that will come up during training that can cause you to lose motivation. And it’s very likely that you’ll miss a run or two (or three!) due to work, family, injury, illness, and the many other obstacles that come with life.
“No matter what the reason, never lose sight of your goal, or you’ll find yourself missing more and more runs and start losing belief in yourself,” Kennihan says. “Post your goal somewhere you’ll see it every day, as a constant reminder, so that, no matter what happens, you’ll see the positive aspects of the situation and keep going.” Remind yourself of how amazing it felt when you completed a new distance and achieved your goals.
7. You aim too high
Yes, it’s possible to set your goals too high, and in turn set yourself up for disappointment. Many first-time runners think their goal should be completing a marathon in incredible time. But, in reality, your goal for your first marathon or half marathon should simply be to finish.
“If you push yourself too much, you dramatically increase your likelihood of injury before you even catch a glimpse of the starting line,” Kennihan says. “Set a time goal for your next marathon, or half marathon, after you see what you’re capable of doing so you can ensure you’re setting the right goals.”
Even if you feel really strong when you begin training and want to run more, experts say to resist the temptation. By going the extra mile, you’re substantially increasing the likelihood of injury and overtraining. Instead, stay with the program, believe in yourself, and stick with an attainable goal.
8. You don’t drink enough water
Many runners suffer from dehydration because they underestimate how much water their body needs during training. But it’s not only important to hydrate before and after your runs, you should also be drinking during them. “Your urine should be light yellow to clear,” Kennihan says. “Dark yellow means you’re not adequately hydrated and need to drink more water.”
However, there is such a thing as overhydration, which is also unhealthy. Aim for eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day and 10 on high-training days. Most of all, listen to your body to figure out what it needs.
9. You eat the wrong things before and after runs
Most runners don’t understand the direct correlation between performance and nutrition. “Eating too much or not enough can directly impact a run or race day,” says Alexandria Williams, RRCA’s certified running coach and director on the board of National Black Marathoners Association. “Make sure you learn which meals, snacks, and fluids work best during base training, and stick to it.” That means skipping the “reward donuts” after a race and opting for a hearty smoothie instead. Especially if you’re running a lot and on a consistent basis. Your meals should be focused on protein, healthy fats, vegetables, and fruits.
10. Your strides are too long
It may seem as though a long stride will take you further faster, but it also puts unnecessary stress on your joints. It can also make your muscles feel fatigued more quickly, and it’s an ineffective running technique. But you don’t want a choppy, fast stride either.
Instead, find your body’s natural stride length — the one that feels most natural and comfortable for your body. Typically, the number of steps you take per minute (also known as cadence) should be between 160 to 180 to avoid injuries such as stress fractures, shin splints, knee pain, etc. While everyone has a unique stride, you shouldn’t be hitting less than 160 steps per minute based on your running level. Using a metronome app is a simple way to gradually increase this and reduce load.
11. You only run on the treadmill
If you’re a runner who’s training for an event, but you only use the treadmill for your training, you’re missing out big time. “Treadmill running is very different than running on the ground, and many people learn this the hard way when race day approaches and they find out their pace isn’t what they expected it to be,” Clayton says.
Believe it or not, the treadmill is doing a lot of the work for you when it’s not on an incline. Running on the pavement, however, means your body’s doing all the work for that forward momentum. You’ll also encounter uneven surfaces, which give your feet and ankles the opportunity to become strong and flexible. If you’re only on the treadmill’s smooth surface, you won’t experience this added benefit.
12. You run even when you’re in pain
When running is your stress reliever, it’s hard to take breaks or time off due to injury. But skipping a run and instead relaxing and putting your feet up can be just what the doctor ordered. “Many runners ignore the pain, self-medicate with over-the-counter remedies, or add tape on a sore muscle — all recipes for disaster,” Walker says. “I recommend keeping a running log and noting how your body feels on a daily basis.”
Remember, there are hundreds of races each year, so if your doctor recommends some off-time, take it. “Too often I see runners asking in forums or on social media for advice regarding whether or not to push through an injury and ignore their doctor’s advice,” he says. “But try your best to incorporate the opinion of a medical professional into your decisions about running — it will help you in the end!”
13. Your breathing patterns are out of whack
It seems hard to believe that you can breathe wrong, but it’s surprisingly more common than not. “There are many reasons why a person has established poor breathing mechanics, including poor posture or certain injuries,” Deibler says.
But when you’re out on a run and breathing through your mouth only, you can get a sore throat and your body can’t effectively filter out some of the pollutants in the air. “The best way to breathe is in through your nose and out through your mouth,” Clayton says. “This technique can be especially helpful when it’s cold outside, as your nose hairs capture small air particles from the environment and warm them up before they hit your lungs.” Practicing this breathing technique throughout the day, even when you’re not running, will help make it feel more natural when you are exercising.
14. You don’t use your arms properly
While running is mainly dominated by your legs, it cannot occur without the proper arm swing. But using your arms effectively while running can help improve your stride length, and it can make your running rhythm feel fluid. As one leg moves behind you, the opposite arm swings forward to counterbalance. The more you swing your arms, the faster your legs will go.
“Often we see people bending their elbows too much or holding their hands too high and causing a shrug of the shoulders,” Deibler says. “This often leads to neck or shoulder pain during running.”
Another mistake is too little arm movement, or the arms twisting the shoulders in and out, creating inefficient movement. The best way to maintain proper arm movement is to pay attention to what your hands are doing. “Make sure your knuckles stay around your waistline as they pass by your hips, and focus on driving one arm forward and the other back with each stride,” he says.
15. You’re running too much, too fast
Once a person is bit by the running bug, it’s sometimes all they want to do. While this passion is great, it often leads to overtraining and injury. “It’s not uncommon for me to see injured runners who periodically have added a mile or two to their planned route,” Walker says. “At the time, this extra mileage feels fine, but in the grand scheme of things it becomes too great, and the increased load often causes an injury such as a stress fracture.”
To avoid this, it’s best to stick to a training plan, or work with a running coach who knows how much you can handle and at what pace to gradually increase your mileage. And don’t be afraid to cut down significantly. In fact, research shows that running just three days per week for 15 to 30 minutes will dramatically reduce your risk of running-related injuries. “That might not seem like enough, but for most people it’s plenty,” Deibler says. “Use longer-distance running sparingly, and limit longer runs to only once per week.”
[Editor’s note: This story was originally published February 2017.]